Friday, 24 June 2016

Ralph Stanley, The Last Pioneer Passes At Age 89

Ralph Edmund Stanley
February 25, 1927 - June 23, 2016
Last of the Original Pioneers of Bluegrass
and Old-Time Mountain Music
 
 Stanley Brothers in Germany, 1965   [Reinhard Pietsch foto]

"Dr. Ralph" Stanley died at his home last night, on Thursday, June 23. His death comes after suffering a terrible fall last year, and ultimately succumbing to skin cancer. 
Ralph was preceded in death by his brother and legendary musical partner, Carter Stanley, who died in December 1966. The Stanley brothers formed their band The Clinch Mountain Boys in the late 1940s. Since then Ralph Stanley has been the 'flame keeper' of the Stanley Brothers music with The Clinch Mountain Boys. Ralph recently passed that torch on to his son, Ralph Stanley II, who had promised his father many years ago to carry-on the "Stanley Sound" with The Clinch Mountain Boys.
Ralph's home is a farm in Sandy Ridge, near Smith Ridge, in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. It's just over a hill from the original Stanley homestead in Stratton, Virginia where he was born. Ralph liked to go up on the top of Smith Ridge and look down over the "old homeplace". 
Keith Whitley, Ralph, Roy Lee Centers
Country Gentlemen Festival 1972,
Indian Ranch in Webster, Massachusetts
Up there on the top of the ridge is where the family graves are located. Many years ago, when Ralph first showed me around the farm, he took me up on The Ridge. Ralph pointed to 2 grave stones near his parents' mausoleum and brother Carter's headstone, marked by a guitar etching. He said, "I've already set my place here." One stone had a banjo, that was Ralph's. The other was for his wife, Jimmi. 
Ralph proudly raised his own animals including quality horses, and as many as 30 cattle at one time. He raised pure bred 'Limousin' and Black Angus. Ralph personally chose his first pair of Limousin from a friend's cattle ranch in Germany. 
The peak of Ralph's career was the massive success brought to him via the 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' movie and soundtrack in 2000. After over 50 years in the music business, Ralph Stanley had found some financial security and well-deserved global recognition for his artistry and contributions to the "Old Time Mountain Music" he lived and loved. Ralph could often be heard telling people, "I'm enjoying things much better now. I'm very thankful for what's happened to me."
Ralph Stanley and wife, Jimmi
Ralph Stanley is survived by his wife of nearly 48 years, Jimmi Stanley, his children Lisa Stanley Marshall, Tonya Armes-Stanley and Ralph Stanley II; grandchildren Nathan Stanley, Amber Meade Stanley, Evan Stout, Ashley Marshall, Alexis Marshall, Taylor Stanley, and Ralph Stanley III; and great-grandchild McKenzie Stanley.

Ralph loved his family, he loved his music, he loved his farm and animals. Ralph was always happy to just sit and talk over a good meal... and with anyone who cared to set with him. He spent many afternoons in his rocking chair talking with locals on the porch of the Ralph Stanley Museum in Dickenson County, Virginia.
 
History, especially our Bluegrass Music history, has been carved-out by several iconic and innovative natural talents. 
Those being, of course, the founder Bill Monroe; followed by The Stanley Brothers and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. But, to me, Ralph stood apart from these others -- both for his music and for the human being he was. 

With the departure of Ralph, the iconic figures who were Bluegrass music's pioneers have now all passed. It's hard to watch history leave us. I've been playing Ralph and Carter's "Old Time Mountain Music" (as Ralph described it) ever since I got the call on Thursday night. 
Of all the pioneers, I will miss Ralph most of all.
In one of my conversations with Ralph Stanley, back when I had a radio show in the USA, he said these exact words which I believe sums up his musical life and contributions: 
"I never thought of all this as 'carrying on a tradition' until that movie a while ago[O Brother, Where Art Thou]. I think I can look back now and see what my place in history might be. I've just always tried to do my job right. It's all I know."